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Hanging from the beams of a makeshift workshop behind Ryoko Kurosu’s beauty salon are thousands of traditional ornaments the hairdresser has created from scratch — colorfully embellished fabric figurines that are testament to the power of perseverance in the face of seemingly irreparable calamity.

Each decoration carries a specific meaning, explains the cheerful septuagenarian, donning a gray kimono-style jacket.

“Take this red, baby-shaped amulet,” she says. “It’s called sarubobo, and it’s supposed to protect you from bad things.”

Such innocent wishes carry a different weight when coming from a survivor of one of the deadliest natural disasters in Japanese history.

Ryoko Kurosu and her husband pose in front of traditional hanging ornaments she created. | OSCAR BOYD
Ryoko Kurosu and her husband pose in front of traditional hanging ornaments she created. | OSCAR BOYD

Kurosu began crafting these intricately woven dolls after a magnitude 9 earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of the archipelago on March 11, 2011, triggering gigantic tsunamis that ravaged the port city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and claimed 1 in 40 residents, or around 20% of the nearly 19,000 that died or went missing in the catastrophe.

Since then, the city has been working to restore what has been lost. Nearly ¥2 trillion in government subsidies have been injected to revamp its infrastructure, according to some estimates — by far the largest figure among affected municipalities. Seawalls as high as 10 meters have been erected along the coastline. Tourist facilities including a large souvenir shop have popped up around newly constructed roads.

Kurosu has also been slowly picking up pieces of her life. Her immediate family was safe, but she lost friends and relatives to the calamity. Her hair salon was destroyed by the dark waves that inundated half the city, forcing her to move her business to its current location at the eastern edge of Ishinomaki. She began focusing on her new hobby to keep her mind off the tragedy and to regain a sense of normalcy.

But in an ominous reminder of the nation’s vulnerability to seismic activity, a magnitude 7.3 temblor hit off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture on Feb. 13, around one month before the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

A memorial park is currently being constructed near the coast of Ishinomaki. | OSCAR BOYD
A memorial park is currently being constructed near the coast of Ishinomaki. | OSCAR BOYD

Nearly a million homes across several prefectures temporarily lost power, while more than 180 people were injured by what the Meteorological Agency later described as an aftershock of the 2011 quake.

“It reminded me of the big one 10 years ago,” Kurosu says. “The ornaments at my workshop came tumbling down. Thank god there wasn’t a tsunami.”

The powerful convulsion was yet another setback for what was supposed to be a milestone year for the region and it’s reconstruction efforts. The 2020 Games, dubbed the “recovery Olympics,” was postponed for a year due to the global pandemic and has been rocked by the recent resignation of Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori over sexist remarks. Many memorial events planned for March 11 have also been forced to scale down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But for Kurosu and residents of communities eviscerated by the disaster, the real challenge lies ahead. After a 10-year, ¥31 trillion spending spree, the government is set to reduce its quake relief budget drastically from fiscal 2021. Ishinomaki, a city of 140,000 long known for its lively fishing industry, has ostensibly succeeded in rebuilding much of its urban landscape over the past decade. But can it stand on its own?

An aerial photo of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a few days after the city was struck by a tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. | KYODO
An aerial photo of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a few days after the city was struck by a tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. | KYODO

Returning to where tragedy unfolded

I first set foot in Ishinomaki a few weeks after the 2011 disaster. The city was a wasteland. Overturned fishing boats and cars were scattered about the coastal area. Entire blocks were wiped out and cluttered with crushed homes and shops. Self-Defense Force vehicles were scraping out roads through a mix of mud and debris as volunteers scrambled to deliver food and other necessities to those in need.

It was at the dust strewn rotary of Watanoha, a railway station on the local Ishinomaki Line, that I met Kurosu. A Christian volunteer group was handing out bento lunch boxes to disaster victims, and she was standing in the queue. She told me she was sheltering nearly 20 relatives who lost their homes and was making daily trips to soup kitchens and evacuation centers to collect goods for her extended family.

A man surveys the damage in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a few days after the city was struck by a deadly tsunami in March 2011. | KYODO
A man surveys the damage in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a few days after the city was struck by a deadly tsunami in March 2011. | KYODO

While I visited other tsunami-torn areas during that reporting trip to Miyagi Prefecture, the scale of the damage I witnessed in Ishinomaki stood out. Over the years, I would find myself wondering how the people I met there were doing. How does one resume life after experiencing such destruction?

In February, I decided to revisit the city for the first time in 10 years. I dug out the contacts of Kurosu and others I had talked to a decade ago. I was also curious about any local initiatives that had been set in motion after the disaster. Damaged streets can be paved and new buildings can be constructed, but a robust cultural scene is vital for communities to thrive, I thought. That’s when I learned about ISHINOMAKI2.0.

Reinventing a city

When the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, Gota Matsumura was taking a late lunch break at the office of a nonprofit organization he worked for. While the building in central Ishinomaki withstood the wild shaking, floodwaters soon burst through the first floor, forcing Matsumura to spend the night on the second floor.

“Through the window I could see cars and drivers being swept away,” he recalls.

Gota Matsumura heads ISHINOMAKI2.0, an organization born in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster. The group has been engaged in various local inititives to bring vibrancy and creativity back to the city. | OSCAR BOYD
Gota Matsumura heads ISHINOMAKI2.0, an organization born in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster. The group has been engaged in various local inititives to bring vibrancy and creativity back to the city. | OSCAR BOYD

After graduating from Tohoku University’s School of Law, Matsumura had been directing sports-based community development initiatives in his hometown. In the wake of the destruction, he began gathering with friends and volunteers at a local tsunami-battered ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) every night to discuss what they could do for the city.

“I never liked Ishinomaki. It’s a typically insular, backward-looking community you can find anywhere in Japan,” he says. “But this was an opportunity to reinvent the city I grew up in. Sure, many were coping with the loss of family and friends, but there were also folks who were willing to try something new to make this town interesting.”

The loose collective of shop owners, architects, researchers and web producers led by Matsumura called itself ISHINOMAKI2.0 and launched a succession of projects to bring vibrancy and creativity back to a city that was suffering from an aging, shrinking population even before the megaquake.

A flood-damaged, abandoned shop was renovated into a bar, while a slick free magazine called “Ishinomaki Voice” was launched, introducing readers to key local figures. Vacant properties on shuttered shopping streets were turned into a cafe and shared office, and cultural and educational events were held regularly. The organization soon began receiving contracts from the city and the prefecture to support residents of post-disaster housing projects and to promote migration to Ishinomaki.

Architect Kuniyoshi Katsu moved to Ishinomaki after becoming involved with ISHINOMAKI2.0. | OSCAR BOYD
Architect Kuniyoshi Katsu moved to Ishinomaki after becoming involved with ISHINOMAKI2.0. | OSCAR BOYD

The grass-roots movement began to draw experts from elsewhere. Yokohama-based architect Kuniyoshi Katsu first visited Ishinomaki in March 2012 to lend a hand with the various projects that were being rolled out. What was supposed to be a one-year stint for him, however, dragged on as he became enamored by the efforts being made to transform a disaster-ridden city into a creative hub. He set up his own firm in 2016, and has relocated to the city since the onset of the pandemic.

“I think the issues facing provincial cities such as Ishinomaki are universal, and solutions can be applied elsewhere,” he says.

Katsu currently manages a weekend bookstore run by ISHINOMAKI2.0 that features select works by local authors, used books and books available for rental.

“These types of social infrastructure serve a vital need for communities,” he says.

But as with other tsunami-hit municipalities that are recipients of the government’s disaster-relief subsidies, Ishinomaki’s resilience will be tested in the coming years when official funding is substantially reduced. The government is allocating a reconstruction budget of ¥1.6 trillion for the five years from fiscal 2021, a fraction of the ¥31.3 trillion it spent during the previous decade.

Takahiro Chiba is a former sushi chef who is now COO of Ishinomaki Laboratory, a DIY-themed furniture brand. | OSCAR BOYD
Takahiro Chiba is a former sushi chef who is now COO of Ishinomaki Laboratory, a DIY-themed furniture brand. | OSCAR BOYD

Takahiro Chiba, a former sushi chef who is now COO of Ishinomaki Laboratory, a DIY-themed furniture brand born in the aftermath of the 2011 quake, voices concern. Around 70% of the customers at Chiba’s family-owned sushi restaurant in downtown Ishinomaki are construction workers, he says.

“The end of the fiscal year is approaching and disaster-related infrastructure projects are almost completed. Once the workers are gone, businesses are going to be hit,” he says.

That’s not all. Maintenance costs for the new memorial park set for completion in late March, for example, will also burden the city for years to come, he says.

“Ishinomaki’s economy was on the decline even before the earthquake,” says Chiba, who lost his mother in the disaster. “The catastrophe showered the city with money, but unless we devise ways to earn cash on our own, I’m afraid we’ll soon find ourselves slumping back to the economic doldrums.”

Still, “the crisis has brought fresh ideas and talent to the city,” says Chiba, exemplified by the diverse members associated with ISHINOMAKI2.0, which he is also a part of. It was also the catalyst for new businesses, including his firm that now collaborates with designers from across the globe to develop its lineup.

Ishinomaki's massive seawall was built to protect the city from future calamities. | OSCAR BOYD
Ishinomaki’s massive seawall was built to protect the city from future calamities. | OSCAR BOYD

What was a local program to teach disaster victims how to build furniture has evolved into an established brand, and Ishinomaki Laboratory now shares its know-how with partners both in Japan and abroad, including in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and Germany.

Ishinomaki also hosts the Reborn-Art Festival, a two-month-long event focusing on art, music and food founded by Takeshi Kobayashi, a well-known musician and producer. First held in 2017 and then again in 2019 in the city and on the Oshika Peninsula, the event is currently being planned for this summer and in the spring of 2022. Matsumura played a central role in working with Kobayashi to realize the festival.

“We have essentially been on steroids over the past 10 years. From here on, we need to stand on our own two feet,” Matsumura says. “It was never my intention to be engaged in one-off projects. The goal is to make Ishinomaki a role model as a sustainable and fun regional city.”

A 10-meter-high seawall has been erected along the coastline of Ishinomaki to protect the city from future tsunamis. | OSCAR BOYD
A 10-meter-high seawall has been erected along the coastline of Ishinomaki to protect the city from future tsunamis. | OSCAR BOYD

A city without a view

The unprecedented, decade-long infrastructure drive has transformed Ishinomaki’s scenery. A giant seawall now obstructs the view of the ocean, while new bridges have been constructed over the estuary of the Kyu-Kitakami River, giving the coastal landscape an inorganic, industrial texture.

Traces of the disaster are mostly gone, save the occasional dilapidated structures that have been left eroding in the wind and clusters of new, glossy gravestones that occupy seaside cemeteries — a reminder of the deadly perils that befell the residents of this city. Fifty-four thousand buildings were damaged and more than 3,700 perished in the tsunami.

Locals remain divided over the necessity of the towering seawall. Some call it an eyesore that could hurt tourism and impact a major source of income for the city — fishery and seafood processing. Rather than investing so much money into massive concrete slabs, why not create new evacuation routes, they say.

Nobukazu Endo, a piano tuner, says the pandemic has led to many cancellations of musical events in Ishinomaki. | OSCAR BOYD
Nobukazu Endo, a piano tuner, says the pandemic has led to many cancellations of musical events in Ishinomaki. | OSCAR BOYD

Others, like Nobukazu Endo, say it is inevitable considering the frequency by which the region is struck by disasters. The Sanriku Coast, which extends from northern Aomori Prefecture to Miyagi Prefecture, has historically been prone to tsunami.

“People have described the 2011 tsunami as a once-in-a-thousand-year event, but Ishinomaki has experienced devastation at much shorter intervals,” Endo says, referring to the 1896 and 1933 Sanriku earthquakes that both triggered giant waves. “When you think about that, I think it’s safer to have the seawall.”

I met Endo while reporting in Ishinomaki a decade ago. A piano tuner and a staple of the local music scene, Endo was at the time preparing to renovate a damaged concert hall and recording studio on the premises of his home.

A steady flow of famous artists, including singer Akiko Yano and jazz legend Yosuke Yamashita have since visited Ishinomaki to perform shows, he tells me. Live music venues were rejuvenated with numerous musical events being held.

“Unfortunately, the coronavirus has brought all that to a standstill,” he says.

Hair stylist Ryoko Kurosu has been crafting thousands of traditional hanging ornaments since the 2011 disaster. | OSCAR BOYD
Hair stylist Ryoko Kurosu has been crafting thousands of traditional hanging ornaments since the 2011 disaster. | OSCAR BOYD

At Kurosu’s beauty parlor, the gray-haired hairdresser explains how she knits together her cloth dolls, or tsurushi kazari, as they are known in Japanese.

Each year during the annual Golden Week holidays in early May, Kurosu opens her studio to the public and gives away around two-thirds of the hanging ornaments. She then spends the next year replenishing her collection. She decided against hosting the exhibition last year due to the pandemic.

This year, however, she plans to go ahead — if the situation allows.

“I’ve been receiving so many calls from people saying they miss seeing my craftwork,” she says. “They say it gives them hope.”

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